Cable Show 2011: Comcast To Stage Network DVR Trial


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Comcast plans to initiate a small test of a remote storage digital video recorder service, akin to the RS-DVR that Cablevision Systems developed and launched after years of litigation with content-rights owners.

"Ultimately it's just an elegant way to deliver this service," Comcast chief technology officer Tony Werner said, speaking on a panel of cable-technology executives here. "It makes it easier to do whole-home [DVR] implementations, because you don't have to do MoCA [Multimedia over Coax Alliance]."

Werner said the field trial will involve perhaps a few dozen homes. Comcast has not said where it plans to run the trial, nor has it identified the vendors it will work with.

Cablevision launched RS-DVR, under the service name DVR Plus, to Bronx subscribers on Jan. 18 and also expanded it to its Connecticut service area.

In 2006, Cablevision had built a prototype of the RS-DVR, only to be sued by a coalition of TV programmers, movie studios and other content owners alleging the service violated copyright laws. The MSO prevailed in 2009 after the U.S. Supreme Court declined to consider an appeal of a lower court ruling that Cablevision was within its rights with the RS-DVR.

As implemented by Cablevision, the RS-DVR provides dedicated disk drive storage for each subscriber who uses the service. That key detail helped Cablevision make its case that the service was no different from conventional DVRs.

A network DVR would be much more efficient if it stored just one copy of a show and provided that to any subscriber who requested it. Werner, speaking on the panel, said his hope is that "as time goes by... things will get more rational about storage."

Also on the panel, Time Warner Cable chief technology officer Mike LaJoie noted that the operator already is delivering a large amount of time-shifted TV in the form of the Start Over service, which lets subscribers watch select shows from the beginning but disables the fast-forward control.

"We do 500 million minutes of Start Over per month," he said. "We are basically capturing everything and recording it, and we have agreements to offer that with programmers who are enlightened enough to do that."

The panel, "Houston, We Have a Solution: Cable CTOs on Innovation, Investment and Invention," was moderated by Sanford Bernstein senior analyst Craig Moffett.

Asked about the threat of increased bandwidth consumption from the likes of Netflix, LaJoie said while expanding network capacity was not free "we have many tools to expand access."

"We like broadband -- I'm not worried about Netflix or anything else," he said, adding that over-the-top video streaming consumes just 3% of Time Warner Cable's available spectrum.

The panelists also discussed user interfaces, interactive applications on the TV and multiscreen video.

Werner said the cable industry's initial excitement about the iPad as a video client has faded a bit. "I am a little off that high," he said, adding that TV-connected devices consume 10 to 100 times more streaming video than tablet users.

As for apps on the TV, Werner said, "We think the killer app on TV is TV.... There's some value in things like weather, news, traffic, maybe Pandora and maybe Skype -- but there aren't many apps on TV that people are really going to use, so far."

ESPN executive vice president of technology Chuck Pagano added that tablets and smartphones are not a substitute for TV. "It's a second screen. It's the best available screen, is what we're pushing," he said.

HBO CTO Bob Zitter said the industry is at the beginning of a significant change in the television user interface. "It has to move more toward search and recommendation, and I think we're going to see a lot of development in this space for the next few years," he said.